Friday, August 26, 2005

The Taliban in Bangalore? 

Nitin/The Acorn has been making a few posts on the funny new laws being enacted by the Bangalore city government to prevent the sale of alcohol after 11:30 pm. The new laws tip from being funny to utterly ridiculous with its ban on dancing, and insistence that classical music be played to prevent people from dancing into the wee hours. This is in Bangalore, which is currently laying claim to being a cosmopolitan and international city. And you can always trust the city government officials to sound super-sanctimonious:
β€˜β€˜The new law is for the good of the people. Why should people stay out late and spoil their own health. We have spoken to a lot of people and learnt that the law has not affected them,’’ says Deputy Commissioner of Police (admn) B Shivakumar.

Well, Shivakumar needs to understand something about a liberal democracy, which India claims to be. Part of the idea is to protect the minority (yes, those immoral dancers) from the tyranny of the majority. Covering up for the fact that the Dharam Singh government is incapable of doing anything constructive, like build real infrastructure for example, by going after people out to have some fun is not going to fool anybody. Despite all the economic progress in India, the babus who continue to be the self-appointed paternalistic guardians of Indian morals and values don't seem to understand the need to stay the hell out of other people's lives. Maybe they don't because they don't understand that morality is a highly relative concept.

These bureaucrats need to have a reading of John Stuart Mill's On Liberty introduced as part of their job requirements. Maybe that way, they will understand the concept of the harm principle, which is one of the cornerstones of a liberal democracy.
The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right... The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

So, the babus could argue that drunken revellers impose an externality on others, thereby causing harm to them. Even assuming this is true (and I don't know this for a fact), surely there are more market-oriented ways to deal with this than an outright ban? What might work?

Assuming there are very high social costs to people getting drunk, how about bars increasing the price of every additional drink? Your third drink will cost 25% more, the fourth one costs 50% more and your sixth costs twice as much as the first. Of course, there are just random numbers. You can insert whatever numbers you like there, but the question is will this form of taxation prevent over-drinking? Or will it turn out to be too difficult to enforce? Is it even warranted if we can instead enforce the concept of designated driving (because drunk driving is a sharp violation of the harm principle)?

If it is warranted and does work, it will generate additional revenues for the government through taxes, which in turn will offset the costs of additional policing. It will generate additional revenue for the bar, which it can use to clean up the vomit. It will give at least some revellers pause because of the increasing prices. What other ideas do you, dear reader, have in terms of market-based solutions?

While on the subject of liberalism, let me also turn your attention to Kaushik Basu's new piece on the Beeb, which calls for increased social progress in India, especially vis-a-vis the gay community. IPC 377, which actually decrees that homosexual acts are punishable offences owing to their criminality, is a law that has always baffled me. The moral crusaders insist that homosexuality is a foreign import. In fact, IPC 377 (enacted by Macaulay) is the foreign import, while homosexuality was always part and parcel of Indian sexuality. Britain herself abandoned her equivalent of 377 sometime in the 50's or 60's, so why on earth do we persist with it? Once again, if we invoke the harm principle, what possible harm does a homosexual couple inflict on anyone else? Just because you don't like it does not mean you can infringe upon someone's else's rights. Like Basu, I too hope that IPC 377 will be amended soon and that the liberal in liberal democracy will finally mean something real and concrete.

PS: I agree with Nitin that the government is barking up the wrong tree when it comes to dancing. If alcohol imposes a social cost, find a way to deal with it. I can see no social costs, however, to someone dancing the night away in a night club. It simply is not the government's business at all.